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V/A - Radio Phnom Penh

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Artist: V/A

Album: Radio Phnom Penh

Label: Sublime Frequencies

Review date: Mar. 2, 2005

I’m a connoisseur of spooky, abrasive sounds. Instructing a friend on what makes a good mix CD, I told him, “If it doesn’t make me laugh out loud, or contemplate murder/suicide, or both, I ain’t interested.” Radio Phnom Penh, a choppy archive of Cambodian broadcasts, is perhaps the creepiest record I own.

Many of the artists here are no doubt dead, wiped out by Pol Pot’s wholesale slaughter of “intellectuals” and other misfits. Either way, none are credited, and good luck finding any relevant info. The disc isn’t so much a collection of tunes as a steady stream of music, stings and cut-ins, dissected, for your convenience, into 13 tracks. One tune will end, and before the display rolls over, an announcer drops in with the customary how-y’all-doin’ call-out. For her part, she’s “so-so.” Which ain’t bad, considering the fragments of news, always mentioning a “state of emergency” or some such upheaval we can hardly imagine outside her radius. According to the cryptic liner notes (which describe genocide as a “remix” of sorts), much of this music was volleyed between different decades and production techniques. Freshly added drums and synths condense beneath and atop “classic” recordings no longer available in their unabridged incarnations. Fuck assimilation; when the society that produced a cultural artifact simply ceases to exist, it ain’t about “fair use.” Plain old survival is something to grow on. Archivists might cringe at the adulterations, but I can’t hear ghosts complaining.

Sketchy history aside, Radio Phnom Penh showcases some of the most vital, idiosyncratic pop music on the racks. Even during Cambodia’s most bloody, isolated epoch, much Western ephemera burrowed into its collective consciousness. Snaky ’60s spy jazz dirty-dances with distilled bossa nova, then gets a pounding disco makeover. A flat keyboard cribs a sinister melody from an exploitative ’50s horror flick, anticipating Dr. Dre’s exploitative gangland funk. Minutes later, our DJ swings through a giddy, clueless cover of “A Hard Day’s Night” long enough to let its head-spinning charm sink in. More after these messages, provided your hut isn’t razed.

Top 40 radio, at its best, creates trainwreck transitions that serve a living tribute to a people’s disparity. Radio Phnom Penh hitches up hodgepodges train cars and throws them on rollercoaster tracks. This sort of kitchen-sink multiculturalism is so much the pride of spoiled, moddish hipsters these days, who knew it could rise from scorched-earth chaos?

As festive and progressive as much of this stuff is, I can’t listen to it without thinking about murder. I chuckle at its ghetto-fabulous craftiness, so as not to cry at the nature of its genesis and evolution.

By Emerson Dameron

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